Tom Shales: Tiger Woods's tried and true mea culpa

In his first public statement since allegations of infidelity arose in November,Tiger Woods issued a public apology from PGA Tour headquarters on Friday. "I owe it to my family to become a better person," Woods said. "I do plan to return to golf one day."
By Tom Shales
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Throwing himself on the mercy of the microphone -- and, of course, the camera -- golf champion Tiger Woods took to television Friday and asked the American people to forgive him for the "irresponsible and selfish behavior" that took him from national hero to humiliated disgrace, threatening his hugely lucrative career in the process.

"I had affairs. I cheated," he confessed. "What I did was unacceptable."

But what he did on camera Friday was largely according to the appropriate playbook -- the prototype for confessions via television established memorably on Sept. 23, 1952, when Richard Nixon, then a vice presidential hopeful, gave his famous "Checkers" speech to a spellbound national audience. Nixon owned up to very little if any wrongdoing that night, but his spiel, perhaps the first infomercial, set the standard and pattern for many a mea culpa to come.

Using the medium skillfully -- if in an obviously manipulative and choreographed way -- Woods administered repeated self-lumps for "behavior" he said he now considers unconscionable; defensively and prominently mentioned a charitable "educational foundation" that he said "will continue to grow" despite his philandering; and vowed to reform through therapy and religion.

He was a good guy who did wrong, the speech said, and now merits forgiveness in the time-honored American tradition.

The 13-minute appearance, carried live on the cable news and the broadcast networks, had a kind of classic structure and approach that made it seem traditional in a culture accustomed to witnessing even the most intimate of confessions via national media.

The choreography included a calculated and effective dramatic moment in the first minutes of the speech. Until this moment, Woods had not been looking into the camera but mostly at the printed speech resting on the lectern before him. Then, after saying, "I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you," he looked directly into the lens (and thereby into our hearts and minds?), gulped as if choking back tears and declared, "For all that I have done, I am so sorry."

This came across as even more agonized and heartfelt than the rest of the speech, and as surrounded by pauses fore and aft, the sentence was ready-made for editing into a snappy, summarizing sound bite on newscasts and documentaries from here to eternity.

One needn't be skeptical to assume that Woods had stage directions to himself -- perhaps "pause, then look directly into camera lens" -- written into the speech, lest he just read through the passage in a normal tone of voice.

Did it work? The purpose was obviously not to refurbish Woods's image in one quarter-hour speech, but to begin that process. Although network commentators bent themselves into pretzels trying to sound cynical and smart, polls will probably show Woods's appearance to have impressed viewers and satisfied their requirements for expiation and redemption via television.

Woods may have made miscalculations, however. His change of tone when complaining about being hounded by the media -- reporters followed his 2 1/2 -year-old daughter to school and even "pursued my mom," he said -- immediately drew criticism, if only from the media. His refusal to take questions, a stipulation announced in advance, might also work against him, but practically speaking, half an hour (or more) of reporters demanding details on sexual liaisons would have served no one very well, except for the lurid tabloid press.

The public may in fact be sympathetic to Woods's complaint about media surveillance, no matter how much TV personalities and reporters complain. He obliged the press by making news in the speech beyond the speech itself: "I do plan to return to golf one day," he said, adding, "I just don't know when that day will be," and also saying he does not rule out "that day" coming "this year." So the sports pages had their headlines.

Woods repeatedly put all the blame for the scandals on himself and could scarcely have sounded more contrite. Even so, snide commentators trounced him afterward.

Woods resembled "a deer in the headlights" as he spoke -- or so scoffed NBC Sports reporter Jimmy Roberts to Matt Lauer during the network's coverage. In fact, "deer in the headlights" is by now a hoary cliche and Woods didn't look that way at all. He looked mournfully contrite.

On CNN, Rick Cerrone, former publicist for the New York Yankees, asserted that the speech was "a P.R. disaster" that could have been mistaken for a sketch from "Saturday Night Live," but these reactions seemed glib and specious. Cerrone said Woods showed "anger" and "annoyance" when he should have shown "humility," but that opinion seems to overstate the amount of media-bashing Woods did in the course of the appearance.

"I don't think he did anything to rebuild his image," huffed Cerrone, but that's a matter to be decided in the hours and days to come, and not by P.R. hacks.

Considering the small assortment of available alternatives, and despite the instant carping of critics who might have preferred a bloodbath of a news conference, Tiger Woods seems to have scored a muted victory on that very dicey and hazard-filled playing field, the national consciousness.

Even Nixon would probably approve.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company